Report Overview

The best schools in England fall into three main groups: independent schools, grammar schools, and top performing comprehensive state schools, which are in theory open to all (subject to certain conditions of geographical proximity or religious faith). However, this ideal of openness regardless of parental income or family background is far from the case in reality. England’s top comprehensive schools are, in practice, often highly socially selective, admitting much lower proportions of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds than the average, and even than the profile of children in their immediate locality.

Written by Carl Cullinane, Jude Hillary, Joana Andrade and Stephen McNamara, this report considers whether significant policy and landscape changes in the last few years have had an impact on social selection and sorting in comprehensive schools. It also looks at what impact using new headline measures has on the composition of the top 500 comprehensives, and considers the implications of the new accountability system for comprehensive recruitment in the future.

Key Findings
  • The top performing 500 comprehensive schools in England, based on GCSE attainment, continue to be highly socially selective, taking just 9.4% of pupils eligible for Free School Meals (FSM), just over half the rate of the average comprehensive (17.2%).
  • About half of this gap is due to the location of high attaining schools in catchment areas with lower numbers of disadvantaged pupils, but the rest is due to social selection in admissions occurring even within those neighbourhoods. 85% of schools in the top 500 admit fewer FSM pupils than live in their catchment area, with over a quarter having a gap of five percentage points or more.
  • Socially selective schools which control their own admissions policies such as converter academies, faith schools and single sex schools are all over-represented in the top 500 schools. Faith schools are among the most socially selective group of top schools, more than three times as selective as non-faith schools, and make up 33.4% of the list. Converter academies admit the lowest rate of disadvantaged pupils of the main school types, and comprise 63% of the top schools, compared to just 40% of all secondaries.
  • There are indications of improvement in the composition of top schools, with the average 9.4% FSM rate up from 7.6% in 2013. In that year, 57% of the best schools had FSM rates lower than six per cent, but the number below that mark has fallen to 39%.
  • The best schools measured by the Department for Education’s new ‘Progress 8’ measure have FSM rates much closer to the national average (15.2%), and are less socially selective, with a third of these schools actually admitting more FSM pupils than their catchment area. Converter academies are less prevalent in this group, with more sponsored academies, foundation schools and community schools.
  • Living in the catchment area of a top comprehensive school is associated with a house price ‘premium’ of around 20%. A typical house in the catchment area of a top 500 school costs £45,700 more than the average house in the same local authority. The best schools measured using Progress 8 are associated with a much lower premium of 8.3%, or £18,200.
  1. More schools, particularly in urban areas, should take the opportunity where they are responsible for their own admissions to introduce random allocation (ballots) or banding to ensure that a wider mix of pupils has access to the most academically successful comprehensives. Reducing the emphasis on geographical proximity will allow fairer access to the best schools and limit socially divisive incentives for house buying and gaming the system. Ballots can ensure a wider mix of pupils have the possibility of attending the best schools, and banding can help to secure school intakes reflecting a wide range of ability. With school accountability measurement changing to a ‘value added’ approach, this reduces the incentives for admissions policies biased towards high prior attainment, and provides an opportunity for a change of emphasis in this regard.
  1. Banding is most effective when a co-operative agreement can be reached between schools in an area. Local co-ordination could be achieved through a local admissions forum, or brokered through the local authority. Groups of schools should thus be encouraged to develop a shared approach to admissions.
  2. Ballots can be used in conjunction with catchment areas to improve the diversity of intake. One way of using random allocation, while making sure that those who live very close to schools are not unduly disadvantaged, could be to introduce both ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ catchment areas. However, using either banding or ballots in isolation may be more effective than using both in combination.
  3. Information availability and willingness to go the extra mile often has significant effects on access to better schools. The Government should find ways – working with community groups, consumer agencies and businesses that are successful in working class communities – to make it easier for all parents to access a range of information to facilitate informed choice-making over their children’s education. This is particularly important with the implementation of the new accountability measures and imminent changes to GCSE grading.
  4. It is particularly important that parents are aware not just of the school choices available, but of their rights to free transport to a choice of three schools within six miles of their home (or up to 15 miles for faith schools) if their child is eligible for Free School Meals.
  5. Faith Schools need to look at their recruitment of disadvantaged pupils. The government has mooted lifting the restrictions on the proportion of pupils new faith schools can select on the basis of religious faith (currently 50%). As our report demonstrates, faith schools are already among the most socially selective of schools, and lifting this restriction is likely to make them even more unrepresentative of their local areas, reducing the number of good school places available to pupils across the socio-economic spectrum. The admissions process for faith schools should instead be opened up so that their admissions are fairer and begin to reflect their local population, while maintaining their ethos.